(Archive: Redtails R Us)
Katey Sagal (Married with Children) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) star in the B-movie TV series, Sons of Anarchy, about everyday life in a small town motorcycle club. Think Sopranos, without dental.
As the second season crests the highway and roars onto FX this tonight, I'm flashing on these biker-citizens of Charming CA, as Red-tail Hawks. High pair fidelity and shredding anyone that gets in their way. Last week's lead-up episode had a great monologue by Sagal's Gemma, as she counsels her alpha female-in-waiting. Tara's the local doc see, so she's a "healer," while Gemma sees her own calling as that of a "fierce mother." Redtail momma.
Last Friday through today, likely sliding in under and now socked-in under gray skies with some rain and now fine wet snow, I've watched the young Sons of Anarchy blow into town with now an even dozen juvenile Redtails... lowrider bellybands, wide black belts of fury, angling for a grip on smallish trees and mammals, like they're from some wild roadless area Up North, still, below the territory of another gang known as the Roughlegs (great name for an MC or some hawk banders kicking the ice and snow crust off the lines).
First, I had six of their punkasses along this local five-mile paved transect I cruise regularly through the Winter. Monday, most of these birds again, plus a bunch more on nearby roads — constituting a wave, in my notes.
Wave theory (tiny intro) in hawk migration and my winter counts, asks what (species), who (age, sex, plumage particulars), and works on the whereabouts (pt. of origin & matters of timing... groping around inside the black box of range and breeding season past). The latter is the critical conservation question... after forty years of hawkwatching in the modern era, some of us are seeking to add on to the old counts, big days, and season high record totals where a Redtail is a Redtail is a Redtail.
With new Euro-style photo field guides and hawkwatch sites backed by banding stations with their own brand of punkasses, where run and gun datasets provide a feedback loop to fine tune the next questions. Wave theory can't pass a purity test, like any other work in progress, there will be outliers within, but it is shocking how interesting the day gets — at the hawkwatch or off the grid — when you think in terms of punching out the checkbox and crossing over the one hawk per line solid centerline.
POV: Are you the hawk or the hawkwatcher?
2 December 2009, Wednesday
Getting the word out on new ideas happens in fits and starts, over simplifications are fashioned, and eventually there needs to be some fine tuning as the training wheels come off, and nuisance and complexity are added to the basic idea structure. In this case, I'm talking about western-like Redtails, originating in the East. It's just not that simple. Not just birds with heavy bellybands and dark throats, like the early work suggested, fit the bill.
In this light, any discussion you come across currently leading off with a term like, oh I don't know, like "western-type"... run, I say, run, quickly, quickly, and don't forget your belongings.
Again, I have something like twenty pages of Wintertails in the old format website, showing variations on the theme of wintering Redtails. Plus references to Brian Wheeler and Jerry Liguori articles in Birding magazine from the day, trying to lay down some basics. It's on those pages, peruse there.
For today, I have a few more birds here for your viewing enjoyment, and the info on the captions expands on this text. Work with the Red-tailed Hawk complex to-date has been old school — cladistics and common sense as the eye sees and measures. Size has been an important metric in the taxonomic literature for the Red-tailed Hawk. The only work anew — that makes any sense going forward — will involve molecular biology and DNA analysis to trace the movement of the birds through time and space... nothing that several hundred thousand dollars won't solve. Water colors and wooden easel aside; get out the BioPhotoshop. But in the meantime...
Wave theory for hawks works like traffic monitoring: you don't try and follow every vehicle to and from it's point of origin to note the ebb and flow, you can watch indirectly, from one vantage point, and think about events upstream. For cars and such, it's the three o'clock shift letting out, the high school dismissal bell, lunchtime, holiday rush... you can see this in the traffic. For hawks, you are placing yourself in the flow and paying attention to age class, region, and collect as much data/bird as possible to infer the seasonal numbers and trends for more than just one species name on the record sheet. And it makes the watching more pleasurable.
Being aware of dispersal flights in the Northeast is interesting stuff too. In traffic terms, dispersal numbers are those having a late lunch and then coincidentally returning to work while others are leaving it... it's an uptick in traffic but more than one thing is going on here. Careful. For hawk flights here, the September Redtails, juveniles by the way, are not just numbers to be chalked up as "locals." In terms of traffic monitoring, you don't decide what to count in the field, you count everything going in the direction you're interested in, and interpret the data late-ah.
While specimens of interesting eastern Redtails have been in museum collections for as long as the collections have existed (very long), I've been interested in the variations of Redtails for a long time too. Having been back and forth between upstate NY and New England, I've noted some distinct differences!
The impressively dark jobs are much more common in NY where they sweep through in waves. Certainly not in eastern MA, sure you can find them but no so much. It's a different story with the "blonde" birds, the white dwarf. I have encountered late Winter waves of these guys tee'd up along interstate corridors for a week or so (the ebb) and then they flow on North through New England. Same plumage is a here and there occurrence in upstate and my North Country ramblings. I find them, but never a sure thing.
My inference is the richly-colored birds are breeders more or less North of NY, while the blonde birds are working up to the Maritimes. Forest type and other factors blend and mix, varying the pattern. But it's my working hypothesis. My piece of the puzzle. We set as many pieces as we can side by side and see what picture we can see. A one-piece puzzle is no fun and solving a puzzle without bringing any pieces to the table isn't much of a science puzzle solving party. Puzzle pieces equal characteristics of the species like age, sex, plumage... noted, by eye or in hand.
3 December 2009, Thursday
While the tourists were talking "western" for interesting eastern Redtails, the professional counters, banders, and ornithologists had already moved on to the quest for abieticola. That would be W.E.C. Todd's boreal Redtail subspecies idea he called, Buteo jamaicensis abieticola (1950, see yesterday's post for a starting point PDF). He declared its underparts "rufescent." He literally laid out rows of skinned, stuffed, preserved, and labelled examples of this well-marked bird whose range went all the way to the coast of Labrador.
In '87, an article appeared in New York State bird club journal, Kingbird (v37:57-64), listing additional specimens located in museum collections many "taken" outside of the "breeding range" (dated during migration and in Winter). The point here being to show that birds that looked western (B.j. calurus) to earlier curators were really something else, new and eastern in origin.
By then, the new Counter Culture was taking flight on Frank Nicoletti's watch, first at Cape May, migrating from there up to Braddock Bay. It's where the young bucks gathered in the early 90s, including Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. With much less attention than these three were garnering, and a decade plus before, Brian Wheeler and his partner in crime Jim Zipp were hawkwatchers and hawk banders in New Haven CT. They all came to hawk banding out of hawkwatching, with zero interest in the business of falconry. At this point, think hawks instead of skateboards and surfing, and you've got a scenario right out of Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) — the perfect storm — narration by Sean Penn, or Pete Dunne.
Back story: When Frank wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History to look at the hawks in their collection, we wrote a letter, but he was turned down flat: he was only seventeen and had no professional academic standing, so there's that. After we came back from the Fire Island hawk banding operation, I suggested that if he got good at the banding, he could handle more hawks in a season than they had in their whole museum... "living study skins," I coined! He had also made a study skin around this time from a roadkill Sharpie for his high school class in field biology. This was filleted on my dining room table... it's okay, we laid down some newspapers first. Fast forward to Braddock Bay, where Nicoletti and Ligouri banded a hundred Redtails in a day and, for their part, the quest for B.j.abieticola was on.
For me, I plugged the problem into my wave theory: if this beast was for real, it should come to me in waves. Big waves, small waves, road waves; on the move or hole up for the Winter. Wave infers region of origin, this begets population and pulls up along side taxonomic standing... this is "speciation 101." Whether in the Champlain Valley, at Derby Hill, or in between, always individuals, never waves. Where I'd have settled for a wave of three, no luck. Tens of thousands of Redtails over twenty plus years of wave-riding, that calculates in my mind to no justification for Bja. Living study skins trumps a mere drawer of them: it's a matter of sheer numbers... I heard that somewhere.
Again, Brian Wheeler (2003, pgs 253-4) sums up the state of this bit of hawk•art•science by gently setting abieticola aside, with his own field observations from across the East, that of many others, and discussions with one of the primaries on Redtail variants over the last several decades, Professor Dickerman himself. Until that DNA money comes along, from the surface of the thing, beauty abounds in the rich and variable plumage of our Red-tailed Hawk here in the northeast, and that's it.
22 December 2009, Tuesday
Even if we divided the entire World of the Red-tailed Hawk in half — those with adult-type tails and those without — we still don't know jack about the species. Why? Because this basic bit of data is just not kept. More birders (and hawkwatchers) have more little fortune cookie aphorisms in their pockets than the simple-age info on yesterday's Redtails. Some do though, and their days are richer for it. I like both.
For us and the Redtail, the tail is the easiest thing to do... for us to check (caution on coloration: see image of juvenile Tail tails sticking out of cans, in the right hand column). And, the Redtail to molt into, as it's a pretty safe bet that the "immature" Redtail, ID'd by tail, is a bird less than one year old. Whether you call it "juvenile" or "juvenal" is up for grabs. Roughlegs too.
The Redtail image with this post has an adult-type tail (adult tail type works too), he also has a pale eye. Not the straw-yellow immie eye color, but not the rich and deep brown devil may care iris either... I'll be looking this Winter, should I encounter this bird again.
Now you can assess eye color with bins, but a fix position scope or better still a photo, examined later, works best. If you're counting, that makes for a three-year aging scheme, give or take. Roughlegs too. Interesting, to me anyway, is this tail and eye progression doesn't work for Broad-winged or Red-shouldered Hawk, while other buteo affinities do. So there's that.
I replied privately to the '05 email below with my own data on Redtail wintering ages. On the one hand, good questions from an advanced birder (who readily answers questions online and leads trips in the field). Then again, he hadn't really kept the notes himself that would start a discussion, and therefore it came out half-baked, kind of stayed soft in the center thereafter, with a sprinkling of Woolly Bear science on top... "Have they reached carrying capacity, and have "shut-down" production this last breeding season?" (Oh my!)
But big ups for asking more and interesting questions. I wonder if he took his own advice?
Subject: Imm. Red-tailed Hawks
You know, you don't need to start a thread online or attach data to the CBC to work on stuff. It is early Winter; a new Winter. Maybe it will seem short/long when it's over, but mostly it is ahead of you.
25 December 2009, Christmas Day
Nothing says "Season's Greetings" like a nice Redtail decked out in plumage from a more northern cline. Fully-hooded and even dripping it down onto the breast... chocolate icing. The sooty bellyband is a favorite seasonal treat, with chevrons on the flanks indicating this is an adult bird (if that's all you saw). In addition, juvenile birds, light or heavily marked, are always uniformly colored... here we seen two distinct schemes, indicating adult. There is a tendency too for eastern Redtails with markings this rich to have affinities to moist lowlands. Gloger's Rule in play, rather than subspecies.
If this is your first visit here, there are a couple of orientation entries that may or may not explain things. For returning raptobates, there are two new archive headings over in the right-hand column for the Counter Culture and Cuba topics. Cuba 3 will be up on Monday.
5 January 2010, Tuesday
Sad to say, nothing is on sale here. No airfare breaks to exotic ports of prey either. Just a rant on making up rules for not counting, wait for it... Redtails. Redtails! To make it "official" though requires writing it down and calling it something official-sounding... like a protocol. First and foremost, protocols are in place at hawkwatches for ignoring two species, especially in Fall, and most especially in September. In addition to the problem with those pesky Redtails, there is the matter of those slow-flying Turkey Vultures, a volatu tardo.
I conducted a very un-official survey of Fall '09 sites that had at least 150 hours of September coverage — the Broadwing season — and/or had at least 2000 BWs (almost the same thing). This would be over twenty sites in New England, eastern NY, and PA (you can use hawkcount.org and pick your own sample sites). A dozen sites, essentially the NE hilltops, reported between zero and ten RTs for the month of September, with one 11 and a 13 tossed in from eastern PA.
At the other end of this artificial spectrum: 67, 81, 99, 100, & 177 Sept Redtails were logged at sites that, interestingly, also record the most hours beyond September and therefore see the breadth and width of the autumn hawk flight. A transect of these sites, up into NY, is also the centerline between the eastern edge of the Great Lakes and Atlantic big water.... the Golden Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk flightline.
The problem is not really a scientific one, because recording no Redtails in September is human error that incorporates an old myth. It becomes science when sites write down everything they see... and, using a protocol that starts from that, is one worth utilizing.
Turkey Vultures, I think, are truly a matter of detection. In New England there are Turkey Vultures one day, not looking very migratory (no obvious streams of the beasts). And the next day, no Turkey Vultures to be quibbled over. So what's up with that?! There are a lot of TVs, after all. Go to the Great Lakes in the Fall (works in the Spring too), even to the very eastern edge of Lake Ontario: the vultures look and act like a perfectly fine migratory species, and there are plenty of them going by. Ignore them or call them locals at your peril.
For both Redtails and TVs, looking around to other sites at the close of the day, over a course of few days (or the season) that have been counting everything, will show movements by way of the expansion and contraction of these "local" birds (counted). Some sites will now see themselves in line and part of a detection process, others won't. Now that's a fact.28 January 2010, Thursday
I have a couple of simple rules for taking pictures. In my wildflower and mushroom days, I didn't step on or pick what I'd imaged. In lying on the ground to face the subject head on, I wouldn't obliterate any others of its kind. And when I picked up tripod, cable release, etc. it should look like I wasn't even there. For hawks, I don't flush birds off perches even if it would make a really good pict.
Out the window with the rules, even if by accident today. Above is the final image in a short encounter with a young adult Redtail (that I thought would not be disturbed into flight if I played it right). As would be my routine, once the bird flushed, I delete those images on the spot, with traffic issues — uncommon on this familiar road — I neglected to that. I looked, expecting garbage, and decided to use them here.
Done with me, the Redtail scans for the next issue before getting back to her hunger. Click on the image above, for two flight shots. I've been seeing this bird for a week or so at the low end of the Hayes Road field complex, where I'm only think I'm keeping tabs on three regulars right now.
It's been a quiet week and the Winter along with it.
4 March 2010, Thursday
Just a couple of weeks ago, I had forty (40) Red-tailed Hawks within a few acres. This happens every Winter... it's the Annual Ithaca Redtail Fest. In the Fall, there's a Beer Fest. Downtown, at this time of the year, there's a Chili fest. But on the outer reaches of the Cornell University campus [1000 acres plus], is a DEC Game Farm for raising Ring-necked Pheasants. Each and every Winter, as long as the Game Farm cheats its budget death, there will likely be a Redtail Fest.
Today I don't know how many are still active around the state, but from this facility anyway, the game birds are raised, shipped out, released into NYS wildlife areas in the region, where they are promptly shot, or die shortly thereafter from stupidity. In MA, at the Barre Falls hawkwatch, pheasant hunters actually come up and ask if we'd seen where the trucks with the birds went or even exactly where they had stopped to release the birds (so the rednecks can find the ring-necks, I guess). Short of shooting fish in a barrel... well, wait, that's what this is. But I digress.
At the DEC facility they talk about the 'thousands' of birds they lose annually to the hawks and owls, but the Redtails are there because the pheasants are fed grain and the grain in turn supports a very dense rodent population, which draws the Redtails. In fact, last week, I saw a young Redtail mantling prey on the ground in front of another young Redtail, one foot away from the hawks were a dozen pheasant onlookers. Nobody ran away; nobody attacked anybody. The hawk had a mouse, not a bird. Now I'm sure some predation occurs, pheasant-wise (oxymoron intended) and a nearly dead pheasant gets finished off by a hawk, but the hawks are there for the small mammals.
The Game Farm is at the intersection of two country roads, Game Farm Road and Stevenson Road... the latter is also the location of the Cornell compost heap and is a gull magnet... famous for all manner of gulls including a Slaty-back in the past. Crows abound here too, having rebounded from their bout with West Nile Virus.
Interesting — it's all Redtails all the time at the Game Farm, but some years a Roughleg might hunt the adjoining unfenced Cornell fields. Also for about five years there was an adult dark morph RT there! Beyond the various agricultural research areas, private working farms continue into the surrounding countryside and raptors hunt those fields, their edges, and the abandoned farmlands, as they would anywhere else.
19 March 2010, Friday
Like profoundly small Red-tailed Hawks — adult males, of course — either overhead or perched in Winter... it's a discovery, each and every time for me, and it brings joy. Now maybe it's all just like seeing His face in a grilled cheese sandwich, let us prey, but I think there's a bit of science in the wings here.
Some adult male Redtails not only look small, but when captured for measuring and banding, are quite a bit smaller. We know from Rochester NY and from a former student of mine in VT that sometimes these birds come in waves, in addition to requiring a smaller band size. But in the field, I have reported here (hunt around within the wave theory entries), that the white dwarf birds have been sporadic sightings for me in NY. But these lightly marked birds, with dark malar marks, are more regularly in New England.
We'll take a study of three birds today that look remarkably alike. When you click on the image above, you'll two birds photographed on two consecutive days that appear to be the same bird, but they are ever so slightly different. The perched bird was imaged on New Year's Day '02 in Nova Scotia... we might consider him a wintering adult and maybe on territory, or nearly so.
The two birds from last week, have young adult bellybands— formed by dark blobs without any fine chevrons or other fine lines. All adult Redtails eventually have fine markings even those with the heaviest of Roughleg-like bellybands (under the Redtail archive, see the Christmas Day bird... look closely for a few fine check marks to go with the very dark iris). The Nova Scotia bird is an older adult even though all three birds have adult tail types and fairly dark irises (although you can see the large bird, above, has a medium-brown eye).
When Yale prof. and MacArthur Fellow Richard Prum was at Cornell (2.19.10) talking about feather coloration in birds and dinosaurs, he also went into the trichromatic vision in reptiles and birds. He said they have what must be like "seeing color in 3D." Their color vision range includes ultra-red, -blue, and -green... "colors we can't even imagine." A few of us hawkwatchers have noticed that we can see visual differences in adult male and female plumages in just about every hawk species we've observed in the field with our puny human eyes. Imagine what the hawks see. Can we see beyond the seen?
In the three images above, note the front-on view of the older male, in the lower right corner. He has the most striking contrasts with his pale "eye brows," blonde head, fine bellyband and then, dark malar marks: indicators of an older, more desirable male (according to work done with other bird species already). In a four image block (12.2.09), you'll see a white dwarf pair, where the female is much darker. The last image in that set is a banded white dwarf male from another year at Derby Hill.
They've got the urge
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